• Rhizaldy Manalo

The Sacred City of Bukhara

In August of 1920, the Red Army led by Commander Michael Frunze descended upon the city of a thousand merchants - Bukhara. Approaching from the southwest, they bombarded the Karshin Gates on the 30th of August in preparation for an upcoming land assault. 3 days later, they penetrated the gates of the Ark Fortress, which served as Emir Mohammed Alim Khan's headquarters in Bukhara, effectively taking the city. 

Today, the city of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan in Central Asia is a landscape of learning, history, and of course - fun - for the children in and around the vicinities surrounding Bukhara. However, it’s cobblestone floors and baked-brick architectural wonders, are drenched in blood, tears, and lost dreams of its ancient citizens. 

Let us take a tour back in time. 

“His”-story, Religion, and Genghis Khan

Let’s start with a review of one of my earlier blog articles, read here.  In this article, I mentioned something about History. 

“History is a concatenation of the words ‘His’ and ’Story’, and although it sounds biased towards men, I’m sure it’s meant for brevity. Of course, it’s not true that History is a compilation of the annals of man alone, for more than 60% of the population are women.” 

I believe that women have as big a role, in shaping mankind, as men do - if not - bigger. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get started. 

Bukhara is a city founded around an ancient watering hole - an oasis, in the middle of the desert. As a matter of fact, the Lyab i Hauz - one of the main ponds in Bukhara where people of old would gather, is built on one of the watering holes from the Bronze Age. Roughly 5,000 years ago, ancient settlers would begin shaping the historical sites of what is now known as the City of a Thousand Merchants. 

Since its foundation, Bukhara has been a melting pot of all religions, cultures, and languages. Religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Jewish history, apart from Islamic history, is the most prevalent out of all in Bukhara.  

Legend says that Jews have been in Bukhara for 2,000 years, while another states that they slowly migrated east and settled in Bukhara later - at the same time as the Ashkenazi Jews settled in Germany, and the Sephardics in Spain. Regardless of how and when they settled, it can be noted that the Jews would assimilate into the culture of whichever country they came to, but always keeping the Torah as their foundation of faith,

It served as the capital of the Bukhara Khanate of the ancient Samanid Empire - a Sunni-Iranian empire from 819 CE to 999 CE - which at its greatest extent, encompassed all of today's Afghanistan, large parts of Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and parts of Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

Around the same time that Bukhara in Central Asia became the capital of the ancient Samanid Empire, there was born a man of great religious intellect. His name, Muhammad al-Bukhari - also known as Imam Bukhari. He would be widely known as the author of the Hadith collection known as Sahih al-Bukhari, regarded by Sunni Muslims as one of the most authentic (Sahih) Hadith collections. The Hadith is a collection of sayings, and teachings of the Prophet Muhammed, second in authority only to the Qur'an.

Sometime after Genghis Khan became the ruler of the Mongol Horde, and consequently, the Great Khan - he started sending envoys and messengers across the known world connected through the Silk Road. The purpose was to gain economic trade favors. In Bukhara, his envoys, however, were mercilessly slaughtered and their wealth taken by the current ruler of Bukhara at the time.

This needless violence enraged Genghis Khan, and actually initiated his campaign of destruction across Asia. After conquering the city - more likely accepting terms of surrender before even sacking the city - he entered the old masjid of Bukhara, with his shoes. Trampling over the rights, traditions, and beliefs of the Muslims in the citadel, he said: “I am your god’s punishment towards you for failing to live up to your religion.” 

Despite his propensity for violence, you have to admit, Genghis Khan’s penchant for Sardonic Irony was on point. 

After, Genghis Khan’s conquest, God - Allah - has blessed the city with a light touch of humor; in the form of Nasreddin Hodja, a 13th-century comedian who was born in Turkey but spread humor in Bukhara at a time after the great Mongol hordes sacked the city. A much-needed relief from the horrors of war, if you ask me.

Architecture and Ancient Monuments

The city of Bukhara, the one now standing, is 2,500 years old. The mother tongue of most people who live in Bukhara is Tajik.

To continue with Genghis Khan’s story - Before the great Khan entered the masjid to berate the people of Bukhara, he first laid eyes upon the tallest structure he had ever seen, the Minaret Kalon. Built in 900 CE - it was built out of wood, but then was burnt down, and rebuilt, over and over again until around 1,200 CE when it was rebuilt into the grand minaret now standing at 49 meters high. A tower of baked brick, and in Genghis khan’s time, it would have been taller by 11 meters, most of which is now buried underground.

Legend says that Genghis Khan walked close to the very minaret now standing, and slowly turned his gaze upwards. As he did, his turban fell off, and he did not even bother picking it up. He just awed in marvel at the towering sight - the likes he has never seen in his life. He then proceeded to bow down at the minaret in veneration. The name itself sums up what the Kalon Minaret is, “Great”, - ‘Kalon’ means great in Tajik. 

Around the Minaret’s exterior, there exists a blue band with Islamic calligraphy which, in its shortest sense says: 

“No one can wish for you any type of harm, except God. And if God wishes good to you, no one can take it away except God.” 

Next to the Kalon Minaret is the Kalon Masjid, the one that Genghis Khan entered in the legend I wrote above - or what was standing there during his conquest - is one of the largest masjids in all of CA. The area itself has been a Masjid site since the 700s. Imagine, Kalon Masjid was created to house 12,000 people for big gatherings and prayers. The population of the city could fit in this one big mosque at one time.  

The architects of the time - in an age when audio systems and electronics would be considered witchcraft and heresy - was able to create a structure that can amplify sound, from one corridor to the other; so that everyone in attendance can hear the Imam reciting their Salah. 

Opposite the Kalon Masjid is Mir Arab Madrasah. It has been teaching Muslims for around 700 years and never has it stopped even during Bolshevik revolution when the Soviets captured Uzbekistan. All mosques, synagogues, and madrasahs were closed except for the Mir Arab Madrasah. On the top of the Arc slab on the entrance of the Madrasah reads an inscription: 

“Allah has testified, and the angels testified, and the people of knowledge testified.” 

To an extent, this means that Allah praises the people of knowledge because they were put in the same sentence as Allah and the Angels themselves. 

The oldest standing structure of Bukhara, of about 1,200 years old, is a small majid near the Lyab i Huaz pond. The area was built on a temple where the ancient Bukharans would worship a moon god. The soviets converted it into the museum you now see.

Tourist Spots of Bukhara

Apart from the brilliant Islamic structures above, there are these tour hotspots that Central Asia Tourism Agencies should bring their tourists to: 

  • Bukhara Bazaar - also known as the domes (Taq) of trade in Bukhara, these are covered markets (Tim), where everything from handmade jewelry, headwear, and rugs and carpets are sold,

  • The Abdulaziz -Khan Madrasah - built in 1652, previously housed the best minds of the time it was built but was decommissioned by the Bolsheviks, now used to house beautiful wood carvings from ancient times to now,

  • Zindan, Emir Prison - located within the city, behind the castle, next to the former Shakhristan gate. The word 'Zindan' in ancient Persian means underground or darkness - the structure is now a museum.

  • Ismail Samani Museum - built between 892 - 907 CE to house the remains of sultan Simail, the terra cotta artwork is impressive for its time and even up to now. It is located near a naturally occurring lake, being that Bukhara was created on the site of an oasis 

  • The Ark Fortress - located in the northwestern part of current-day Bukhara, was built and occupied in the 5th century CE, roughly 1,600 years ago by the military of the time.

Downfall of Bukhara, and the Regime of the Bolsheviks

Bukhara in Flames

Operation Bukhara - initiated by the Bolsheviks (Red Russian Army) was a gruesome battle for its time, evidenced by multiple fires raging all across the city during the siege.

The occupation would signal one of the most recent changes to the political climate in contemporary times.

The last ruler of Bukhara - Mohammed Alim Khan, the last descendant of Genghis Khan - would flee the city with 1,000 of his loyal man, as the rest made a final stand in the Ark Fortress. All men who defended the stronghold were put to the sword. 

Alim Khan would end up fleeing to a remote base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and finally to Kabul, Afghanistan where he would die in 1944, leaving a son who disowned him and joined the red army and a daughter who flew to the USA.

It is at this point when we end our tirade of The Holy City of Bukhara. The world is full of amazing places, but between the brilliant sights of the cities that never sleep, and the serene highlights of beaches and long drives, it is also a blessing to gaze back into the sands of time and view our world in all its hues and tints.  Only then can you really say that you know the world. 

We at CentrAsia Tours offer majestic packages across Central Asia and into the heart of the ancient sacred city of Bukhara. 


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